Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Faith of Atheism

Being a theist, I naturally have problems with atheism, a number of them in fact. (Oddly enough, I tend to have more problems with atheists than I do with the -ism, but that's a topic for another post.) At one point in my life, I gave atheism a run for its money, but it just didn't work for me. It's not that I think atheism is completely irrational; I just thought the arguments for, first, the existence of God outpaced those against it, and the same for the arguments for Christianity (Peter Kreeft does a good job articulating them).  But today, the problem I want to talk about here is what I'm calling the faith of atheism, and yes, I'm using that somewhat ironically.

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett. The man, unfortunately, is an avowed atheist. And just like all authors, he writes his point of view into his works.  Who knows, maybe that cynical bent helps him to write his characters as well as he does.

Anyways, one of the recurring characters (maybe the recurring character) is Death. Pratchett develops Death's character in such a way to make him likable, but Death is also the character that Pratchett uses to cast his most critical eye on humanity (because, you know, Death is outside of humanity, but he is made in humanity's image). A lot of what Death says is both humorous as well as insightful, and I think I can dare to say that at times Death most closely articulates Pratchett's own views on things.  In fact, I think I saw a DVD extra in which he says as much.

In Hogfather (one of my family's favorites among his prolific Discworld series), Pratchett waxes particularly philosophical. I don't have the quote handy, but the basic gist is that things like Justice are just big lies we tell ourselves that we have to believe.  He says something like "take apart the universe to its smallest particles and show me one grain of Justice" or something like that. It's actually fairly poetic in its own way (I'm not doing the passage justice, no pun intended).

Sadly, I think it does accurately portray what an atheistic, materialistic worldview honestly is left with at the end of the day. No indeed, there is no atomic element of Ju (Justice), nor of Lv (Love), nor any other virtue. In a materialistic philosophy, these things really are lies, and an adherent is forced to have faith in those lies in order to create a reality that is bearable as a human.

This faith in terms of the scientific basis for it and the act of will it requires is not different from that of believers in God--it's just the object of the belief that differs. And I tend to think that in terms of the day-to-day impact, much like for many folks who place themselves in the theist camp, the faith is typically just an assumed substrate in their day to day life, not something they actively engage. Perhaps one difference is that some atheists may try to deny that they have such faith, if put to the test, saying rather that, for example, Justice is only a handy term to represent a reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest.  But then ask them what they think about having prayer in schools or not redefining marriage to include homosexual unions, and just listen to them go off on how "unjust" those things are.

The point is not to call them out as inconsistent (we are all inconsistent; it's part of being human). The point is just to highlight that on a day-to-day functional level, we all believe in concepts like Justice, and often it goes deeper than functional to a non-rational, emotional level. We just believe in it.

So what is my problem, then, with atheism? Well this specific problem is that if I'm going to believe in things like Justice, Love, Freedom, Happiness, and other ideals and virtues, I prefer to have a rational basis for believing in them. I couldn't bring myself to believe in something that I rationally thought to be a lie, and a humongous one at that.

Not only that, my own human experience is such that I have experienced these things personally. I think it takes a tremendous amount of faith to believe that my human experience is only the result of material interactions in my body. On the contrary, every fiber of my being tells me that there is more to my existence than the material--my own, observed and reasoned experience (I tend to be fairly self-reflective). So why would I take it on faith from scientists (an Authority) or atheistic philosophers (another Authority) that this is so, contrary to my own observations of life?

For me, that would take a lot more faith than to believe in what seems obvious to me based on my own experience and reason, namely that there is a Prime Mover in and from whose very Being these ideals and virtues immutably subsist in eternal perfection, that this Being created the universe, including humanity, to have some share in those, and that it is because of this that I innately recognize them as real and not a lie we have all agreed to tell ourselves.


P.S. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that what I've said here is somehow a proof for God or even that there's no way to be an atheist and be rational. My view is that we are human and that means we are more than only rational intellects (and more than only bodies). We're all partly rational and partly not, and frankly I think our personal experiences factor into our choice of worldview a lot more than pure reason.

I do think that it is self-deceiving to say (as I've heard some atheists proudly proclaim) that one can live his or her life strictly on "facts" and "science." One would have to be paralyzed (intellectually and, ergo, physically) to do that; it's just not a practicable viewpoint to take--you have to build up a worldview based mostly on three sources: 1) what you have experienced personally (this would include any scientific experiments you've done), 2) the authority of others whom you trust (for whatever reason--this is where what is functionally faith comes into the picture), and 3) reasoning about these two basic sources of information.  You simply can't practicably live by only (1) and (3), and you can't effectively even develop the ideas of "facts," "science," "scientific method," or leverage "peer review" without (2).

P.P.S. Note that I am using the term "faith" loosely here. Generally I prefer the traditional approach of reserving it to mean that belief specifically applied to God, especially as applied to the theological virtue of faith. But I use it here intentionally to illustrate that in human terms, the movement of the mind and will towards a materially unverified (and sometimes unverifiable, in any practical sense) object is functionally equivalent regardless of the object. Hence, the "faith" of atheism, of which I have only scratched the surface in this reflection.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Irresponsible Journalism

This is just reprehensible and irresponsible journalism. I agree that Rick Santorum is not stating the case as clearly as it could be (or in a sympathetic way), but he is vocalizing things that a large percentage of Americans think. The claim that he is not mainstream should be qualified as not mainstream media.

Let's look at the controversial issues:

  • education: personally, I think this is more politicking on both sides than any real disagreement, but maybe not. Rick is not anti-higher education; President Obama is not a snob for advocating for higher ed. Everybody knows that not all jobs require the same level of education and that all people are not the same in terms of their interests and capabilities. We just need to help people realize their potential regardless.
  • marriage: well, polls show that the majority of Americans think marriage should be defined between a man and a woman, and last count I saw it was some 31-6 states that had voted along those lines; hardly an "extremist" perspective. Oh yeah, and our current President said he thinks this, too.
  • pre/extramarital sex: most everyone agrees that affairs/cheating on your spouse is bad; teen pregnancy is generally agreed to be undesirable; STDs, also bad. Abstinence outside of and fidelity within marriage are the only sure ways to protect against these evils, and there are plenty of Americans, especially parents, who agree with that. This is hardly an extremist position.
  • role of women: Cohen makes note of this in passing, as if there is something substantive, but there isn't. I suspect Cohen is projecting his bigoted stereotypes of devout Catholics ("barefoot and pregnant") onto Rick rather than actually understanding Rick's position on women. In fact, just saying "role of women" is telling about Cohen's perception; what if you said, "role of men"? Seems to me that talking about the "role of women" is inherently sexist, as if you could just sum up what women bring to the societal table in a neat little package any more than you can for men..
  • contraception: we can agree that Rick's (and my) view of contraception is not mainstream, but that doesn't make us extremists. If we use percentages to determine extremism, then all homosexuals would have to be classified as extremists simply because there aren't that many of them. But I hope we all agree that this would be wrong. Rick has explicitly said that he would not try to impose his views on contraception. But he should have the right to speak about his views on it just as much as Michelle Obama has the right to speak on her views on health and President Obama share his views on the environment or, indeed, women's health.  But unlike the President, Rick is not going to force all Americans to pay for his views or violate their consciences.

There is a strong current (and has been since at least Kennedy's time), especially in court decisions but also in common culture, to make religion purely a private matter. This is not a "conservative trope" disconnected from reality. In more recent years, this has turned into outright hostility towards religion, especially Christianity, in the public square. The media backlash against Santorum is enough evidence in itself that this is the case.

These more recent societal tendencies are purely secularist. And it is deceptive to pretend that the secularist agenda is neutral or fair or even American. It is intolerance personified. "Absolutely no religion in the public square" is the mantra.  The neologism of "separation of church and state," not found anywhere in the Constitution, has become the cultural presumption.

What Rick, Newt, and many others of faith are saying is that religion is not a purely private matter. It's not just a hobby we practice on the weekends. It is part of our identity, and it is a big part of what motivates us toward the common good and how we view the world. The Constitution guarantees us a right to "free exercise" (words actually in the Constitution), and that includes more than going to services on the weekends.

We don't want to establish our religion as the national state religion; we don't want to persecute those who disagree with us. We're not out to impose our religion on anyone. But just as the secularist works within the democratic system to realize his ideals on the common good, so do we. We should be able to talk freely about our religion and how it motivates us and impacts our thinking, without being branded extremist. We should even be able to offer religious reasoning in favor of public policy. People don't have to agree with us, but the open hostility and virulent, hateful character attacks that result when we do today are unacceptable and wrong.

We--people of faith--are the vast majority in America. We need to stand up for ourselves and stop buying into this false secularlist ideal of total separation of church and state, that the two are inimical to each other, that we can't pray, can't talk about, and can't show our religious beliefs in the public square. We've let it go on for too long; we've let the secularlists bully us into silence and the stripping the public square. It's time to stand up for our Constitutional--indeed our basic human--right to be people of faith and not be ashamed of it.

It is normal to be a person of faith.

It is good to be a person of faith.

It is good and normal to let your faith motivate you towards the common good and to tell others why and how it does.

Don't let irresponsible journalists, media figures, or anyone else tell you otherwise, and not only that, we should call them out on it when they do.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dazed and Tired

That's how I've felt today--dazed and tired. Some virus or other has taken hold, and I spent the first half of the day in bed. Now I'm not that much better, maybe a tad bit clearer of mind.

It's times like these when you're reminded of the unity of body and soul. The world seems more sinister, life bleaker when you feel like crud. You feel weaker, more given to anger. You want to mollify yourself in unhealthy ways. We're not pure intellect. We have bodies for a reason--they are part of us, not a cage or carriage in which we are but passengers.

Bodily weakness and suffering is an opportunity to surrender to grace. Blessed John Paul II exemplified this in his final years, as did even the Son of God in his humbling Incarnation and Passion. May their examples and that of so many saints lift up those suffering in body, inspiring them with the strength they need to resist weakness of will and with the hope they need to overcome despair.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Social Justice and Faith

Day two of my blog a day for Lent, and I'm feeling a bit zoned out due to this darn cold. Anyways, every so often, it occurs to me that in Catholic circles we seem to have this unhealthy divide between what you might call "social justice" Catholics and, well, let's say "dogmatic" Catholics.

Social justice Catholics are those who tend to put their focus on the here and now, the earthy concerns we have. As such, they tend to be the majority because I think most people just aren't that into theology per se but are rather mostly concerned with "living life"; you could say, they are concerned with theology as applied to worldly matters.  Put another way, they are the Marthas--concerned with making sure people get fed, have clothes, have a living wage, health care, and so on. 

On the other hand, dogmatic Catholics are those who revel in the doctrine of the Faith. They think a good homily is one in which the nature of the Trinity is explored, while homilies that deal with common sense morality are banal. They tend to be the ones who advocate for Eucharistic Adoration, communion on the tongue, personal sin, and in general the intellectual and spiritual aspects of the faith. These are the Marys, and they are concerned with making sure people know the Truth, that they believe it, and that they tend to their eternal souls.

As in Scripture when Martha reproached Mary for "doing nothing" in sitting at the feet of the Lord, it's not uncommon for the Marthas of our day to express similar sentiments about the Marys--they don't do enough, all they care about is "sitting in church" and "being religious."  But as we see, Jesus told Martha, "you are anxious about many things but there is need of only one thing, and Mary has chosen the better part." This is often interpreted as an indication of the importance our Lord put on spiritual-intellectual things--sitting at the feet of the Master and listening to him, and that it is "the better part" can seem somewhat scandalous to our common sensibilities, especially in our contemporary materialistic culture.

On the other hand, there are plenty of indications that while the spiritual-intellectual concerns are better and more important, we cannot forsake the physical here and now, particularly not the here and now needs of those who cannot care for themselves. In St. Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25, our Lord tells us that those who neglect caring for "the least of these" will have no part in his Kingdom.  St. James tells us clearly that faith without works is dead. It is obvious that Christians who care only for the spiritual-intellectual life are missing something crucial.  

We all have our predispositions. We have different gifts and talents. We have different vocations.  But we need to remember that, as St. Paul told us, we are all members of the Body of Christ. The hand can't say to the foot, "we have no need of you." We should, rather, be thankful for each other because together we work to build up the Body of Christ in a way that none of us could do it on our own.

Similarly, in our own lives, we need to be mindful that we cannot become too lopsided. If we are inclined to be Marthas, we need to put extra effort into understanding the doctrines of the Faith, maybe making extra effort to make it to Adoration, read a theological book, pray a bit more, listen to our bishops a bit more.  If we are inclined to be Marys, we need to make time to participate more in corporal works of mercy, think more realistically and concretely about how to help "the least of these," and act on that. 

We all need to realize that the intellectual-spiritual nature is indeed more important ("better"). We need to realize that we must love God first, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and tend to the care of our immortal souls, but we must also not let that turn us in on ourselves--we must love our neighbor as ourselves, enliven our faith with works of charity, both with spiritual as well as corporal works of mercy. We cannot neglect social justice but neither can we neglect the dogmas of our Faith. (We should not let politics/party affiliation cause us to lose sight of the Faith--in the US no one party has a corner on the Faith.)  Just as faith without works is dead, so are our works ultimately worthless if we believe not in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith. 

And truly, as we come to understand the Faith more, the more we will be led to love, for it is not a common altruistic motivation that drives us to help those in need, but rather we come to see that our love for God and our love for our neighbor are essentially one and the same--that we love our neighbor in God and because of God. Our social justice cannot be considered apart from our dogmas on the nature of God, our relationship to him, and personal holiness, for it is out of these that our doctrines on social justice flow.  Nor can we neglect social justice on the pretense that we are focused on the spiritual-intellectual truths of the faith. The two flow from the One.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lent Is a Time of Penance and Joy

Wow, it has been four years since I last wrote on this topic (The Black and the White) .  Not surprisingly, it was also just around this time of the Church year--Lent, a time of penance and joy. In that post, I focused on the reason for joy that underlies our penance, a joy that springs from true hope.

Thinking back, that was early 2008, before things really went south with our economy, and so now, in 2012, even though there are glimmers of economic improvement, we know that these have been truly hard times for many people, times that doubtless have seemed without hope for some. And for people of faith in the US, it seems our government is working against us now more than at any time in the past.

But we who know Christ know that no matter how dark it seems in our circumstances, we can and should still have hope, a real hope that outshines whatever darkness we find ourselves in.

The everlasting and infinite mercies that God condescends to pour out on us through his Son truly are an inexhaustible source of hope from which our ineffable joy springs eternal.  Let us not forget this during these dark times, and let us take on our penitential disciplines with a renewed sense of this hope and joy.

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: “For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”  
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A Blog A Day for Lent

Okay, I admit, I'm a few days late, but in my defense, I only decided to go ahead with this idea today. In addition to whatever else I am doing for Lent this year, I'm going to take on the discipline to blog at least once per day.

Why? Not because I just have to tell you my opinion on something--my goal is for this to be a labor of love in that I want to try to share something meaningful with you, some meditation or thought that you might find stimulating and even helpful.

On the plus side, the fact I have to do it daily means that I probably will keep it short, which is a challenge for me, as anyone who's read my blogs much will know. :)

I was tempted to count this announcement as my blog for today, but that would be cheating, right?  Well anyways, for the sake of indexing and findability on teh internets, I'll make it a separate post.  So TWO blogs today!  Woohoo!